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John Krull commentary: Evan Bayh, Joe Biden and unlearned lessons

Some lessons people have to learn again and again.

And some lessons they never learn at all.

Years ago, when Evan Bayh was governor, a Republican chieftain told me his party had made a fundamental mistake with the then young prince of the Indiana Democratic Party.

This was near the end of Bayh’s governorship. He had been elected at the tender age of 32.

Republicans depicted him as young, immature and ignorant.

“Don’t send a Bayh to do a man’s job,” read one memorable campaign sign.

The attacks didn’t work. Bayh sailed through two terms. His public approval ratings hovered at nearly 70 percent.

In part, this was because Bayh courted public support with finesse.

But it also helped that his opponents had set the bar so low for him that achieving basic tasks left him looking like a world-beater.

“We underestimated him. Worse, we encouraged everyone to underestimate him,” the GOP wise man told me long ago. “He turned out to be smarter than we thought—and because we’d told people over and over that he didn’t know what he was doing we made him seem smarter than he was.”

I thought of that conversation and that lesson as Republicans and conservatives knocked themselves out trying to derail President Joe Biden’s first formal press conference.

They have conjured up a fantasy portrait of Biden as a stumbling, senile dotard, a wreck of a human being who cannot even function on his own.

They have lowered the bar for him so much that a snail could sail over it.

That’s what Biden did. He answered questions with a mastery of detail we haven’t heard often in the past four years.

The talking heads on the right were left to bluster about the fact that Biden had a briefing book and that he’d studied before he faced the public.

A president who does homework? One who listens to people and tries to know what he’s talking about?

Oh, the horror.

One of the things conservatives love to mock about Biden is his big grin. They see it as a sign of fatuous non-comprehension.

In truth, the president probably smiles so much because he knows Republicans are doing his work for him. If they keep saying he’s on the edge of collapse, he can record win after win simply by making it to the end of sentences without drooling.

If they went after him on more substantive grounds—say, on whether his aggressive plans to stimulate the economy are likely to be inflationary and thus raise costs for working Americans—Biden might stop grinning so much.

Because he’s smart enough to know that every plan—every action—has a cost.

I felt the same way when Democrats pounded President Donald Trump over relatively trivial matters. If they had ignored the fleeting distractions of the Trump presidency—the endless petty corruptions—and, instead, pounded away on issues closer to voters’ hearts, they would have had more success.

They should have reminded Americans of all Trump’s unfulfilled promises. Where is the cheap and wonderful health care you vowed we would have? Where are the new factory and manufacturing jobs? Where’s the booming farm economy you pledged we’d see?

Not only would such an approach have been more effective, it also would have been more honorable.

In a well-functioning self-governing society, the role of the party out of power isn’t simply to oppose the party in power.

It is also to hold the party in power accountable.

That’s why it would make sense for Republicans to push Joe Biden to show how he’s going to rebuild an economy devastated by the pandemic rather than depict him as a kind of presidential Mr. Magoo. Every time he enters a room without falling flat on his face, they give him a victory he didn’t even earn.

But refraining from such mockery would require discipline.

Discipline is something that must be learned.

Some lessons people have to learn again and again.

And some they never learn at all.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.